By Greg Aragon
Through the morning fog we could see the outline of the 100-year-old light station, standing guard along jagged cliffs above the Pacific Ocean. Easing closer, the sound and mist of the ocean waves became powerful and hauntingly beautiful. We knew we were in a special place.
My getaway to Point Cabrillo Light Station began when a couple friends and I pulled off Highway 1 about 3 miles above the town of Mendocino, in Northern California. On this part of the highway, the ocean has carved out large cliffs that look over some of the state’s most prolific beaches. It is because of this perch that sailors in 1909 began erecting the marine outpost.
The facility was built on a point of land extending westward into the sea. The location for the lighthouse was selected by the U.S. Lighthouse Service so that the light would be most visible to shipping and sailing in and around the dangerous and busy bays of the Mendocino coast. This same attribute makes Point Cabrillo a perfect lookout spot to watch the annual migration of the gray whales from the lagoons of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean.
The light station is a California State Historic Park that includes the historic 1909 Light Station which encompasses 30.5 acres; and approximately 270 acres of undeveloped coastal bluffs, prairie land, and numerous coves. One of these coves is Frolic Cove, the site of a famous shipwreck.
In the summer of 1850 a sailing brig named Frolic hit a reef just north of Point Cabrillo and was stuck in a hidden cove. It was dubbed “the most significant shipwreck on the west coast” by local maritime historians because while attempting to salvage the vessel, people discovered the redwood forest. Although the attempt to salvage goods from that ship failed, the attempt led to the discovery of the redwood forest. San Francisco was a booming town in need of wood, and soon there were towns and mills scattered along the Mendocino coast. Coastal shipping resulted in more shipwrecks, leading to the construction of the lighthouse.
For millions of years before ships began sailing off the Mendocino Coast, the redwood forest grew along the beaches. Divers discovered the wreck in the 1950s. It was initially thought to be a Chinese junk. The site is now a California State Underwater Park.
The history of the light house is no less impressive. When we arrived, we discovered that most of the original buildings were still standing: the three keepers’ residences, the storage buildings (two of which are rental cottages, the third houses bathrooms), the Blacksmith & Carpentry Shop (now home to the Marine Science Exhibit), and the Oil House.
A highlight of our visit was seeing the lighthouse lens, located in the the Lantern Room at the top of the tower. With a range of 13-15 miles, the lens was originally powered by a kerosene oil lamp. There are only two other British-built lighthouse lenses in operation in the U.S. today. The four-sided bull’s-eye lens rotates at a fixed speed to produce a flash at 10-second intervals.
One of the best times to visit Point Cabrillo Light Station is in March, when the annual Whale Festival takes place. In addition to a grandstand view of the annual gray whale migration, visitors can see the 240-gallon saltwater aquarium and the Marine Science Exhibit.
For those who want an unforgettable visit to the property, overnight accommodations are also available in one of the Light House vacation rental homes. There are two larger houses and two smaller cottages available for overnight stays. For more information on staying overnight, visit: mendocinovacations.com, or call (800) 262-7801.
The Point Cabrillo Light Station is located on Point Cabrillo Drive, between Mendocino village and Fort Bragg. The Light Station is approximately a half-mile walk from the entry gate on Point Cabrillo Drive. Visitors can park in the paved parking area at the gate. The parking area is open from sunrise to sunset daily. For more information on visiting Point Cabrillo Light Station, visit: pointcabrillo.org.